Michelle Wolf and The State of Comedy in the Trump Era

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Photo: Rolling Stone

Comedy by all measures only has 3 guidelines: Be funny, tell the truth, and make people in power uncomfortable

Michelle Wolf was able to do just this at the White House Correspondent’s Association Dinner on Saturday night in Washington. She made the crowd of assembled journalists, politicians and guests laugh; she made them squirm, and she made them gasp in astonishment.

Yet in return for her performance, partisan defenders of the president and members of the press criticized Ms. Wolf all the same. Journalists called her set “offensive,” “deplorable” and “a debacle.”

The WHCA who booked the comedian to perform released a statement. They said, “Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit” of the group’s mission.

Comedy Isn’t Funny Anymore

Elite media personalities openly boast that Trump and his administration deserved the unusually brutal treatment. “Before we criticize Michelle Wolf, let’s remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done,” said MSNBC’s Howard Fineman.

“Whatever one might think of Michelle Wolf’s performance,” David Corn of Mother Jones, “it’s clear that anyone who works for or supports Trump has no basis for complaining about vulgarity or personal insults.

Trump is no stranger to lobbying insult-comic punch lines at his opponents. He is the first president to outright skip the gala since Jimmy Carter. When it came to Wolf’s performance Trump called an “embarrassment to everyone associated with it”.

Her most cutting joke came at the end when the 32-year-old comic took direct aim at the journalists in the room. Mr. Trump, she said, “has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”

The irony here is that she’s caught flack from the journalists, the ones who should be championing Wolf’s freedom of speech and defending her first amendment right.

So, which is it? Does the White House press corps want to use the platform to let the unvarnished truth be spoken to those in power? Or would they rather prioritize the preservation of politeness and a chummy relationship with the administration we rely on them to cover? If it’s the former, great! That’s what comedy is.

An audience for a New Era

The media has done a great job of reporting on the many norms that Trump has violated since his presidency began. It has a lot of work to do in becoming aware of, much less reporting on, its own manifold norm-violations, or how those norm-violations work to Trump’s advantage.

So who is comedy for? Reactions vary about her performance, as they should, but if this was not the platform for the comedian and her set, then what is?

Speaking with The Times in February, after her selection as the evening’s entertainer was announced, Ms. Wolf said that comedians at the Correspondents’ dinner “are not necessarily performing for the room.”
“You’re performing for everyone that’s watching it,” Ms. Wolf said, adding: “If you’re willing to say something when someone’s not there, you should definitely be willing to say it to their face.”

“You’re performing for everyone that’s watching it,” Ms. Wolf said, adding: “If you’re willing to say something when someone’s not there, you should definitely be willing to say it to their face.”

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